Star Stays in Shadows : Ducks’ Paul Kariya Prefers to Avoid Contact With Public
As a youngster, Paul Kariya and his family used to gather around the television set to watch the NHL All-Star game. “That was a big deal,” he said. By the age of 12 or 13, “I used to practice my signature,” he said--hoping against hope that someday somebody would ask for it.
On Saturday, Kariya will start in the All-Star game in Boston alongside his boyhood idol, Wayne Gretzky, and the crush to get the autograph Kariya practiced so carefully will be like never before.
At 21, Kariya has achieved the star status he craved, but he is finding the off-ice adulation more uncomfortable than he imagined.
Some fans have complained to the team about what they perceive as Kariya’s “attitude,” even writing letters to complain. (Though he can’t be too unpopular because he received 260,327 All-Star votes, third among Western Conference wingers.)
Those who forgive him call him shy. Those who don’t call him worse. Even his agent, Don Baizley, has noticed Kariya in a crowd, his face turning “glacial.”
“I think Paul’s got some boundaries,” Baizley said. “He’ll sort it out as he continues to make adjustments. He has responsibilities to the game and the team as well as himself.
“Some of this is all too new. Paul’s sort of figuring out where the reasonable boundaries are. He’s a private guy. . . . Maybe as Paul becomes more comfortable and more used to it it will change. For the time [being] he’s being cautious.”
Some fans think leaving through back entrances or the Pond’s tunnel even after a practice is beyond cautious, but Kariya says he struggles with the notion that many of the autograph-seekers aren’t fans but entrepreneurs.
“There’s the fans and then there’s the autograph-seekers that are in it for money,” Kariya said. “There’s a big difference. At the All-Star game, all the major sponsors will be there and it’s certainly important to be visible and shake hands. But it’s also going to be a great opportunity for a lot of people who are there to make money off autographs.
“Around here, it’s ridiculous. Guys go to stores in the mall and see fake autographs that are supposed to be theirs. It’s big business. That’s why people are out there every day, supposedly as fans but really trying to make money.
“They must be making a living doing it, because they’re here during normal work hours. And some of the kids are the worst. Kids should be in school, not here trying to make a quick buck off an autograph.
“It gets to the point it’s ridiculous. They’re out there waiting for the bus at 2 in the morning after we get home from a game.”
Duck Coach Ron Wilson said he doesn’t think some younger players “exactly understand it’s important to interact with the fans and take time.” But he notices the same faces too, even the same cars.
“People sneak around or hire kids to do it to change the faces,” he said. “You see the same truck always parked in the corner. You can’t tell me that’s not what he’s doing. If it does seem like they’re trying to make money off it, I’m all for not signing for those people.
“But at 3 in the morning, there aren’t 50 people there, just one or two. Just sign the stuff and go on as far as I’m concerned.”
Kariya’s attitude about those who profit from his signature would be hypocritical if he sold his own autograph at the myriad card shows where players earn appearance fees for signing. He doesn’t.
“Never. It’s just not something I do,” he said. “If I get a day off, I want to rest. I don’t want to sign in a situation where they make people pay. It’s just not right for me. There’s nothing wrong with other guys doing it.”
Outside the Pond after the morning skate Wednesday, a half-dozen or so men in their late teens and 20s waited for the players. At least one admitted he sometimes sells the autographs he gets to friends.
Another, Steve Heiberger, who said he is a season ticket-holder, wants autographed pucks to decorate his room.
“It’s frustrating for us.” Heiberger said. As for Kariya, “I haven’t even bothered anymore.”
Stacey Dahn of Huntington Beach and her husband, Ian McGagh, are season ticket-holders who sometimes visit Disney Ice, the Ducks’ practice facility in downtown Anaheim.
“I can understand if someone was holding a huge number of things. Most players are not going to want to sign four or five things,” said Dahn, who added it would “never cross my mind” to sell an autograph. “Paul has gotten a little better with the kids. He’ll toss a puck up to kids. But if adults are the ones paying to see him play, I think we’re important too. He can’t make a split-second decision that because a person is an adult they must be selling it. I think true fans shouldn’t be dismissed just because they’re adults.”
Dahn and McGagh said they were disappointed by Kariya last year at Fanfare, the Ducks’ annual charity event.
“We waited in line maybe two hours and got to the front just in time to hear Paul say something to the effect of ‘How much longer?’ ” she said. “The other players were trying to talk and make conversation and be really pleasant. After waiting so long, it didn’t leave the best impression.”
Kariya won’t sign pucks, because he believes they’re commonly sold. He signs cards and pictures, and said it’s best to add a personal note--it deflates the value.
“Most people who send stuff in the mail are legitimate, and I try to sign it to the person who sent it because it means more,” he said. “Or if somebody stops me while I’m shopping and asks, I don’t mind. I know they’re not out shopping just to get my autograph.”
He rarely stops to talk with the fans who gather outside the arena tunnel where the players drive out after games.
“Sometimes I stop,” he said. “I’ve left posters. But it’s late at night. It almost seems kind of dangerous to stop. I don’t feel comfortable.”
Guy Hebert, Oleg Tverdovsky, Todd Ewen, Bobby Dollas, Randy Ladouceur and Robert Dirk are among the Ducks that fans say are especially friendly. But Hebert is the only one who receives anything close to the kind of attention Kariya gets.
“For someone like Paul, it’s overwhelming,” Hebert said. “I’ve been around a guy like Brett Hull, and seen how he handles the situation. Sometimes with something like that it’s better not to stop at all or you’ll never get out of there.
“Sometimes people don’t understand you might have a dentist’s appointment you’re late for and you’ve got to get in your car and go.
“I try to sign as much as I can. Unfortunately, the autograph business is big business. We do see the same people out there again and again, and after awhile you say, ‘I know you just can’t be that big a fan, to be honest.’ ”
Kariya hopes the demand will diminish with time. “Maybe it’ll die off after the team’s been here awhile,” he said. “Some of it I think is the popularity of the Disney merchandise.
“But no matter what I do, I’ll never please everybody. I don’t lose any sleep.”
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